The proposed project would make all this too dangerous to continue …

Aug 202017
 

Summary

District Municipality of Muskoka
Both the construction and operation of the proposed hydro-electric generating station at the Bala falls could damage the District’s Muskoka Road 169 bridge over the Bala north channel and the road adjacent to it. The District initially stated they would conduct a transparent process to determine whether to issue the District approvals the proponent needs to begin their proposed construction, but District staff now intend to issue the approvals without answering questions about these risks or showing the information they have received on this issue.

Damage to this crucial public infrastructure would require a 50 km detour for emergency response vehicles, businesses, tourists and everyone else, so a transparent decision-making process is warranted.

We therefore request that the District release the information they have on the impacts to their infrastructure due to the proposed project. One concern is this information may not consider all of the risks, such as that the MNRF requires the proposed upstream cofferdam be removed within 24 hours notice to avoid flooding Lake Muskoka if there was a heavy rainstorm during the proposed construction. The full flow would go through the the proposed construction site, washing away everything along the way, and this could permanently destroy the District’s bridge and collapse the road.
 

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
It would be unprecedented to build a hydro-electric generating station in the middle of a very popular in-water recreational area, and a station one-tenth the size caused the drowning of a 16-year-old boy in 2008 – so the danger is real. We have therefore requested that the proponent be required to provide a safety plan before any further approvals are issued. This is justified as MNRF documents state the MNRF has the authority to govern the design, operation, and safety of dams in Ontario.

Despite this, the MNRF has stated they do not have the authority to require, before any further approvals are issued, the proponent show the proposed generating station could be operated safely.

We understand the proponent has in fact provided safety plan, but this has not been disclosed to the public.

Both the Environmental Assessment Act and the MNRF’s Statement of Environmental Values require meaningful consultation before any decisions are made.

We therefore request that the proponent’s safety plan be disclosed to the public and that the public have an opportunity to provide comment, before the proponent receive approval for construction. This plan requires assessment by someone with in-water recreation safety expertise.
 

Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change
For years, the proponent has been making environmentally-significant changes to their plans, yet the MOECC’s response continues to be that environmental approval was granted in 2013 based on the information available at that time, and this cannot be withdrawn.

We’ll accept that, however that approval also stated: “Swift River Energy Limited must implement the Project in the manner it was developed and designed, as set out in the Environmental Screening Report …”. We’ll also accept that changes will be required in any planned project and that small changes do not need to be approved or even reviewed by the MOECC.

Clearly, there is some threshold of changes that would require environmental assessment, and it would seem justified to state that this threshold has now been exceeded, as the changes risk:

  • Flooding Lake Muskoka.
  • Drowning unsuspecting visitors because the public safety measures would deceive the public.
  • Dumping contaminants into the Moon River, the changes are environmentally-significant.

For example, the proponent is required to test and treat water pumped from their proposed excavation. This would be done using large settling tanks. The proponent has recently proposed a new plan that these be located within in their proposed construction site, on excavated rock piled in the Moon River.

A problem is that this area would be inundated if the MNRF requires the proposed upstream cofferdam be removed, and this could tip over the settling tanks, resulting in untreated water and sediment to be dumped directly into the Moon River. As this was not presented for the proponent’s 2013 environmental approval, the MOECC’s procedures state that such new plans be subject to the Addendum provisions of the MOECC’s Guide to Environmental Assessment Requirements for Electricity Projects.

We accept that the environmental approval the MOECC issued in 2013 is still valid. However, it would not apply to the environmentally-significant changes the proponent has made to their plans. We request that the MOECC inform the proponent that if they wish to proceed with their new plans, that these changes be submitted in an Addendum.
 

Detail

Before they could construct their proposed generating station, the proponent needs approvals from the following:

The District Municipality of Muskoka
The proponent needs permits from the District, all related to the proponent’s need to cross, access, or utilize Muskoka Road 169 either during or after the proposed construction. To receive these permits the proponent needs to meet several conditions, such as providing a $2,000,000 Letter of Credit which would hopefully be enough to pay for any damage the proponent’s construction may cause, such as to the District’s bridge. There are many ways that the District’s bridge or road could be damaged by the proposed construction or operation and we had an opportunity to meet with the proponent and District to discuss these. The District informed us that we were asking the right questions, and that they were receiving reports from both the proponent and the District’s own consultants on this issue. As follow-up, we detailed our questions in this letter.

While the District had initially stated:

  • Their decision process for issuing these permits would be transparent.
  • There would be a second meeting to discuss answers to the questions (and this meeting was scheduled, but later cancelled).
  • The answers to the questions would be provided in written form.

The District has since issued this report and apparently intends to issue all approvals to the proponent without without informing the public what information the District has received on the risks the proponent’s work would create or how the District has decided that the risks to their public infrastructure is acceptable.

We subsequently sent this letter to the Premier’s Office which was copied to the District’s Commissioner of Engineering and Public Works, to whom we also sent this cover letter.
 

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
So that the risk of flooding Lake Muskoka is not increased, the MNRF has required that the proposed project cannot obstruct any flow through the Bala north channel, either during the proposed construction (upon 24 hours notice) or operation. We have therefore written several letters to the MNRF, such as this. As the responses did not address the questions, we requested to meet with the MNRF, but they have refused.

The contractor selected by the proponent, CRT Construction (web site here, Facebook page here) has proposed a new upstream cofferdam design, which would be at least the fourth from the proponent. As noted in this letter, this design may also have unacceptable risks, such risks and their mitigation are to be disclosed during the environmental assessment process.

This issue was also addressed in the above letter to the Premier’s Office.
 

Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change
The MNRF claims they only have responsibility for dam safety (that a dam will not fail, flooding all those downstream), and not public safety (the safety of people near a dam). This may be true, but it is clear that human life is part of the environment, so must be considered as part of an environmental assessment. This was confirmed by a recent decision by the Environmental Review Tribunal which found that the MOECC was wrong to approve eight wind turbines, each as taller than a 40-storey building, near two Ontario airports (more detail near the bottom of this e-Newsletter). This decision also confirmed that if the MOECC does not have the required expertise in-house, they must seek external experts.

It is also clear that the proponent has made environmentally-significant changes to their plans, and these should be subject to the same environmental assessment process as the rest of their plans were, as noted in this letter to the MOECC.
 

Ombudsman Ontario
The office of the Ombudsman of Ontario will rarely question a decision made by a government office, but they will investigate if it appears that a decision did not follow the required policy or procedure, or if a decision was made for which the government office did not have authority.

We have therefore sent a copy of the above letter to the Premier’s Office to Ombudsman Ontario along with this cover letter.

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